Moonshine Capital of America

The following is an excerpt from
When The Engines No Longer Roar: A Case Study of
North Wilkesboro, NC and The North Wilkesboro Speedway.

A Thesis By: Andrew J. Baker
2005 , All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 2

The Birth of a Speedway, The Beginnings of a Sport: The History of North Wilkesboro Speedway (1947-1996)

2.1 “The Moonshine Capital of America”

In a 1950 American Magazine article titled “Millions in Moonshine”, the town of North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County was given the moniker “moonshine capital of America” (Packard, 1950).  The prohibited manufacture and sale of illicit whiskey was a multi-million dollar industry and a major component of the economy in this tiny, woodland town described as a “prosperous, bustling city” by its mayor (Packard, 1950).  North Wilkesboro was a major distribution point in moving moonshine throughout the South due to its geographic location in the foothills of the Appalachians.

Image of early Moonshiners in Watauga Co.

Many of the early settlers tucked away in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina were of Scotch-Irish descent, an ethnic group in which generations of families learned the skill of making homemade liquor.  Further, many moonshiners sold their products to generate income in a poverty-stricken area where farming was difficult and few jobs existed.  Local moonshiners located their stills in rough, remote wooded areas in the foothills of the mountains sine the stills were easier to hide from the Federal Revenue officers, known locally as “Revenuers,” in such a location. (Davis 1990)

The undercover business of making moonshine was coupled with the secret transportation of the illegal liquor from the hidden stills in Wilkes County to markets across the Southeast.  Running through North Wilkesboro, U.S. Highway 421 was a major moonshine transportation route, linking the backwoods and hills to larger cities like Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Charlotte (Davis 1990).  It has been estimated that there were at least 700 people in Wilkes County hauling whiskey, popularly called “tripping” (Wise, 2004).

A bootlegger’s car was equipped with “hopped-up”, modified engines that exceeded 115 mph, hwile the police cars that chased them topped out at 95 mph ((Menzer 2001).  Often, bootleggers would insert special springs and shocks to help make sharp turns at fast speeds.  When these cars were not being used to haul whiskey, drivers would race each other to see who the best driver was or who had the fastest machine, in hopes of wining a cash prize.

A chance to earn extra income and clout among fellow bootleggers spawned action-packed races and quickly led to rising attendance at these unofficial events.  Rules,  however, were few and variable, and crooked promoters often left town with the purse before the race was over.  This led to several major attempts at creating governing bodies in the sport in order to clean up corruption (Menzer, 2001)

2.2 The Birth of a Speedway

Recent research by Suzanne Wise, director of the Stock Car Racing Collection at Appalachian State University’s Belk Library, ahs examined the early history of the North Wilkesboro Speedway.  She states, “[I]n 1945, Wilkes County resident Enoch Staley attended stock car races presented by William Henry Getty France, Sr. known as Big Bill, one of the top race promoters in the Southeast.  Staley was excited by the sport and decided to build a track in his native Wilkes County, North Carolina.  France promised to promote the races and help run them for part of the proceeds.” (Wise, 2004 1).  Staley, with partners Lawson Curry and Jack and Charlie Combs, purchased farmland near North Wilkesboro and began excavating and construction an oval racetrack (“Grand Finale,” 1996).  However, the group’s initial investment of $1,500 ran out, causing the .625-mile track to be shorter and more undulating than planned (Wise 2004).  The track was not a perfect, symmetrical oval and took on a very distinctive shape as the frontstretch sloped downhill while the backstretch sloped uphill.

Upon completion of the speedway in 1946, one news reporter suggested, “North Wilkesboro Speedway is the racing Mecca for Northwestern North Carolina.  The five-eight-mile oval is nationally recognized as one of the fastest dirt tracks in automobile racing (Anderson, 1990, 149).  Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, a local racing legend, stated that the first race ran at the speedway was an unscheduled, unofficial race organized by local bootleggers (Anderson, 1990, 237).

The track’s first “official” event was a Modified race on May 18, 1947.  The race included the running of heat races and a feature race primarily involving 1939 and 1940 modified Ford coupes.  This inaugural event was deemed a major success as thousands filled the grandstands, infield, and even the trees just outside the track. (Anderson, 1990, 236).  Although the grandstands held over 3,000 spectators, it was estimated that over 10,000 race fans paid admission to watch this inaugural event (Helyer, 1996).

Many of the earliest drivers were among the best Carolina bootleggers (Cain, 1996).  North Wilkesboro native and NASCAR driver Benny Parsons once said, “Trust me, there was nothing to do in the mountains of North Carolina back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  You either worked at a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, or you made whiskey” (Wise, 2004, 2).  Two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett recalls, “Back then (the 1940’s) most of the drivers were bootleggers from Alexander or Wilkes Counties, or just a bunch of fools who didn’t have better sense”
(Wise, 2004, 2).

Old photo of dirt track racing at North Wilkesboro.

The most successful early racer at NWS was life-long local resident Junior Johnson.  Raised less than ten miles east of North Wilkesboro, Johnson grew up hauling his father’s homemade whiskey throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains (Hinton 1996).  In Thomas Wolfe’s (1965) The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Junior Johnson is proclaimed as the “last American hero” due to his aggressive, bad-boy driving style that shaped much of the image of early stock car roots.  In a recent interview, Johnson boasts, “I wouldn’t say I was better than everybody else. I just say I’d never seen anybody I didn’t think I could outrun” (Junior Johnson Interview, 2004).

The name Junior Johnson is synonymous with the early days of North Wilkesboro Speedway and stock car racing; he can remember when the infield was filled with rows of corn and the ticket booth was a chicken house.  During the summer of 1947, Junior Johnson began his racing career at the speedway.  He recollects, “I was 16, plowing a mule and planting corn for my father when my older brother L.P. drove up to the field and said they were going to have a race over at the new North Wilkesboro Speedway.  He wanted me to drive his liquor car, a 1940 Ford.  All the cars racing at North Wilkesboro then were liquor cars” (Hinton, 1996).  About fifteen to twenty cars showed up for this early unofficial event in which Johnson dodged holes and dirt clods in his moonshine car around the unfinished track.  He would go on to test race cars during the prime of his racing career (1955-1966) at his home track two or three times a week, earning four of his fifty total career NASCAR victories there.  Many spectators would drive long distances to watch Johnson race at his home track in North Wilkesboro.

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